Saturday, December 21, 2013

It Came From The Cineplex: The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug was directed by Peter Jackson and is the second installment in his Hobbit trilogy. It was written by Jackson, his partner Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro (that means "of the bull").

The Desolation Of Smaug is a fast paced action fantasy that's long on action (boy is it long) but short on substance. I liked the previous film quite a bit, but this one… eh, not as much. I thought Desolation had a oddly disjointed quality to it and I can't believe I'm saying this about a 161 minute movie, but at times it felt rushed. Entire sequences (important ones too) whiz by in a flash so the filmmakers can concentrate on massive battles and set pieces. 

Desolation is very similar to The Two Towers, as it's the middle part of a series and it deviates the most from the source material. Huge swathes of the movie are made up out of whole cloth, while other parts (mostly the ones involving Gandalf) are culled from the appendices of The Return Of The King novel.

This surprises me. I expected overlong and inflated action scenes from Jackson, who's fast becoming the master of the bloated epic. But what I didn't expect was for him to torpedo so many of the elements that made the book a beloved classic. 

For over a year Jackson's been insisting there's more than enough material in The Hobbit to fill three films, but this particular entry doesn't contain all that much from the book. I cannot emphasize this enough: There's precious little of The Hobbit in The Desolation Of Smaug. You'd think in stretching a 300 page book into nine hours of film that they'd have to include every last period and comma, but no.

Could it be possible there wasn't three film's worth of content after all, and it was necessary to invent new sequences? But… but that would mean someone in the film industry lied! That's impossible!

Maybe my opinion of the film will improve on subsequent viewings. The same thing happened the first time I saw The Two Towers-- didn't care that much for it at first, but the more I saw it the more I liked it.


• As I mentioned earlier, many scenes in The Hobbit novel are barely touched on or dropped altogether in the film. 

Take the meeting between Thorin and Company and Beorn, for example. I always liked this chapter in the book, especially the part where Gandalf whimsically introduces all thirteen dwarves to the unpredictable bear-man. 

Unfortunately none of that is in the film, and Beorn appears for about three minutes, tops. I guess they needed to trim his part to make room for more river barrel chase scenes.

Maybe there'll be more of Beorn in the inevitable Extended Edition DVD?

UPDATE! The "Beorn Introduction Scene" is indeed in the Extended Edition. It's a fun scene and it was very well done, and I'm glad they included it. That said, it really should have been in the theatrical film. I shouldn't have to pay extra to see scenes that made the book famous.

• This is a very minor point, but where exactly is all the "desolation" caused by Smaug? We get one very brief scene of the ruined and abandoned city of Dale that lies in front of Erabor, and that's it. Not much to hang a title on, is it?

I get that they're using chapter names (and names of maps) from the book as movie titles, but… this one doesn't make a lot of sense. Since it's likely that Smaug's gonna attack Lake-town in the next film, it'd be more logical to give that one the Desolation title. But if they did that, then they wouldn't be able to use There And Back Again for the third entry, which has a nice air of finality. Oh well.

• All of Jackson's previous Middle Earth films have begun with exciting and memorable opening sequences.The Fellowship Of The Ring opened with a flashback battle between an army of men and elves versus Sauron. The Two Towers opened with an epic, jaw-dropping clash between Gandalf and the Balrog. The Return Of The King opened with a flashback depicting how Gollum came to be corrupted by the One Ring. An Unexpected Journey opened with the history of the dwarves and the destruction of Erabor by the dragon Smaug.

So what exciting sequence did they use to open this film? Um... Gandalf and Thorin sit in the Prancing Pony pub and recreate scenes from My Dinner With Andre.

What. The. Hell? There's absolutely nothing that occurs in this flashback that we didn't already know. The only thing that happens is Gandalf invites Thorin to a meeting at Bilbo's house, which we already saw happen in great detail last year. Surely there was a more interesting way to waste ten minutes of run time? 

• During these opening scenes, Peter Jackson makes another cameo appearance, reprising the one he made in The Fellowship Of The Ring as "Carrot Man." Unfortunately it's annoyingly blatant. They might as well have had neon arrows pointing at him.

His appearance also creates a bit of a continuity problem, as this film takes place some sixty years before Fellowship. Is this Carrot Man supposed to be the same character in both films? If so, he hasn't aged a day in six decades.

• At one point there's a mention of the Seven Dwarf Tribes Of Middle-earth.

That was unfortunate. Did it have to be SEVEN dwarf tribes? I know that's how it is in the books, but the filmmakers are doing their best to depict the dwarves as a tough and formidable race, so the last thing you want to do is remind the audience of Snow White.

• Once again Bombur the dwarf goes through the entire film without uttering so much as a word. We're two films in now, and he's yet to say a single thing. In fact many of the dwarves had little or no lines this time. 

I wonder how the actors feel about this? They were hired for their acting abilities, right? Then they all went through extensive physical training to learn to ride and fight, endured hours of prosthetic makeup application and after all that trouble many of them are little more than background set decoration. They're being paid well I'm sure, but I bet it's still frustrating for them.

I get that when you have fifteen main characters it's difficult to give everyone a chance to shine, but Cheezus, they're making three movies that clock in around nine hours total! You'd think in all that time they could find something for each character to do.

• A nice touch: During the giant spider attack, they make hissing and clicking sounds that are incomprehensible to Bilbo. After he puts on the One Ring though, their speech is immediately understandable to him.

The ring slowly exerting its evil influence on Bilbo (causing him to savagely kill a giant spider) was another nice touch.

• In The Return Of The King Extended Edition, there's a scene in which Gimli and Legolas have a drinking contest. Gimli ends up passing out while Legolas is barely affected, implying that the physically superior elves are immune to the effects of alcohol. 

However, in this film Bilbo sneaks into King Thranduil's wine cellar and finds several elves who've apparently passed out in a drunken stupor. Whoops!

So which is it? Does alcohol affect elves or not?

Some might say that the scenes in the Extended Editions don't count, but Jackson wrote and filmed them, New Line sold the DVD and happily pocketed any money they generated, so as far as I'm concerned, they count.

• After the fabulous elf-king Thranduil captures the dwarves, he and Thorin Oakenshield argue in his throne room. Thranduil shouts, "Do not speak to me of dragon fire! I know its wrath and ruin. I have faced the great serpents of the north!" As he says this, the flesh on the left side of his face dissolves, revealing the muscle and bone beneath.

What the hell was that all about? I'm far from a Tolkien expert, but I don't remember anything like that happening in the book. In fact, a quick google search reveals no one, including the hardcore fans, really understands what was going on in that scene.

From Thranduil's dialog it's obvious that he's faced dragons in the past. Was he seriously burned in a battle with one, and he's using his elfly powers to disguise his scars? Then during the argument he lost control, revealing the damage? That seems like the simplest and most likely explanation, so that's the one I'm going with.

• As everyone knows by now, Tauriel the elf-maiden is not in any of the books and was invented whole cloth for the movie, presumably so they could add a girl and keep it from being a complete sausage-fest. 

Oddly enough I thought Tauriel's scenes worked quite well. Most of them, anyway. I could have done without the whole, "forbidden star-crossed lovers" subplot though that was already mined to death by Aragorn and Arwen in the first trilogy. 

It was especially puzzling that members of two races that typically hate one another (in Tolkien's works) would fall in love so quickly, and that Tauriel would risk everything to follow a dwarf she's known for all of an hour.

I guess now we know why they made Kili the "hot" dwarf, even though up to this point no member of the race had ever shown a tendency to be handsome.

• Because King Thranduil is Legolas' dad, you know what that means! Yep, Legolas is back! Even though he wasn't in the book, he makes an appearance here for all the fangirls who oohed and aahed over him ten years ago. Plus his appearance gives Jackson another chance to ham-handedly link this trilogy with the first one, just like Frodo's superfluous presence in the previous movie.

• Something about Legolas' eyes looked odd to me… like he was wearing weird blue contacts or something. His eyes were brown in the earlier films. 

• A perfect example of Peter Jacksonitis: In the book, Bilbo hid the dwarves in the wine barrels, sealed the lids, threw them into the river and they gently floated downstream, undetected.

Of course here this becomes a major half hour-long set piece that goes on and on and on as the dwarves fight both elves and orcs while sailing down the rapids at breakneck speed. Exciting, but definitely not necessary.

• This applies to all the Tolkien movies Jackson has made: Apparently there are no guardrails in Middle-earth. Time and again we see elevated paths and walkways that zigzag across bottomless chasms, with nary a railing to be seen. 

I hope no one ever trips while walking across one of these paths, or they're gonna fall for hours before hitting the bottom.

• As always, the production design on these movies is top notch, especially the look and feel of Lake-town. It really did look like it had been around for hundreds of years. Kudos to the production crew!

• When Kili is recovering from his wound in Bard's house, why is his head laying in a bowl of walnuts? Is that what passes for pillows in Middle-earth?

• The Kingsfoil plant that Tauriel uses to heal Kili made an appearance in The Fellowship Of The Ring. In that film Aragorn attempted to heal Frodo with it after he'd been stabbed by a Ring Wraith.

• One last thing about Kili: the whole subplot about him being incapacitated and sidelined in Lake-town was completely fabricated for the film. Same goes for 
Fili, Oin and Bofur staying behind to tend to him. In the book all thirteen of the dwarves go to the Lonely Mountain.

This change was no doubt made in an effort to give Tauriel more screen time.

• Once again everyone in the film very deliberately and precisely pronounces the dragon's name as "Smawg," as in "kind of rhymes with wow." I've been reading Tolkien since high school and I always pronounced it like "smog." I can't prove it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that's the way it's supposed to be pronounced, but Jackson thought people might laugh if a smoke-belching dragon was called "Smog."

• Bilbo sneaks into Erabor and enters a vast space filled with huge mounds of gold and treasure (guarded by Smaug, of course). This enormous room must contain every last piece of gold in all of Middle-earth. And then some! This place is huge! Huge, I tell you! It's at least several football fields in length, and piled with drifts and dunes of gold hundreds of feet deep. Yes, it's visually impressive and spectacular, but… is there really that much processed gold in Middle-earth? I don't see how there could be any left outside Erabor for people to spend.

Not to mention what it's going to do to the local economy once it's all put back into circulation.

• Smaug the dragon is impressively brought to life by Weta Digital, and looks amazing. In the book he talks, and that's fine on the printed page, but when it's translated to film… well, let's just say I was worried that he'd look silly. Fortunately that's not the case, and he looked just fine when he spoke.

• In a similar vein, in the book Smaug's hide is imbedded with an impenetrable layer of gold and jewels after years of lying on his vast treasure. I was kind of leery about that and was worried that it would look really stupid on film.

Luckily they chose to ignore this description and instead Smaug has "iron-like" scales.

• When Smaug awakens he starts thrashing about, causing the entire mountain to tremble. The dwarves outside look puzzled and ask what's happening. Balin pauses dramatically and says, "That, laddie... was a dragon."

Durr! How the hell did any of the dwarves not know that? The entire point of this quest is to retake Erabor from Smaug, who they know has been holed up inside for decades. They talked about it extensively in the first film, and every step they've taken on this journey has been leading them to a confrontation with him. Plus they just sent Bilbo into the chamber and warned him to not wake the dragon. So why are they suddenly all confused as to the source of the rumbling?

• Once awakened, Smaug begins attacking the dwarves inside Erabor. They trick him into using his flaming breath to fire up their forges, and they drown him in a pool of molten gold.

Why, oh why, oh why did the dwarves think that coating Smaug with molten gold would kill him? He's a dragon, for poop's sake! He breathes fire! He has a visible furnace in his gut! Why would a little molten gold bother him in the least?

The only reason this sequence exists is to pad out the run time, because apparently Peter Jackson is under the impression he gets paid by the minute.

• Many are complaining about the ending, or rather non-ending of the film. Eh, it didn't bother me. First of all, it's traditional for the middle part of a trilogy to end on a cliffhanger. That's just the way it's always been done (see The Empire Strikes Back).

Secondly, if they hadn't ended it where they did, they'd have had to include Smaug's attack on Lake-town, which would leave very little content for the third film. There really wasn't any place else they could have ended it.

The Desolation Of Smaug is visually spectacular as always, but unfortunately falls short of being perfect. Maybe they should have trimmed a few action set pieces and included more from the book. It won't matter what I think though, as it'll still make a billion dollars worldwide. I give it a B.

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